Having a disability in Africa – What’s that like?

Written by Shaun Cleaver

Those people must be the poorest of the poor!

Just to stay alive in those circumstances – such resilience!

I work with people with disabilities in Zambia, a country in southern Africa that North Americans seem to vaguely recognize. When I am in Canada and talking about my work, I often hear comments like the ones above – where Canadian presume that Zambians with disabilities live in either hopelessness or infinite inner strength.

From my interactions, this not a case of “either/or” – especially not the extremes of “either/or” that people imagine.

The imaginations of Canadians are probably informed by what they can remember about Zambia – which is generally very little. Much more is known about Africa! For example:

  1. There are animals there.
  2. There is lots of poverty.
  3. Corruption is a problem.
  4. There are wars, right? I thought I heard there was a war or something.

The thing is, many of those points are at least partly true for countries within the continent of Africa. Africa is big. There is lots of diversity. And yet there are commonalities that are true in many places much of the time.

In the case of Zambia, there are lots of amazing animals, there is terrible poverty and corruption is a problem. Yet Zambia is also quite peaceful. In addition, the country has been experiencing steady economic growth for years and is having an explosion of shopping malls in the capital. Somehow, Canadians never seem to spontaneously imagine those last two points.

Of the stereotypes applied to Africa more generally, these are often true, but not all of them, not everywhere, and not all of the time. More importantly, the stereotype list is incomplete.

How did I get to slagging stereotypes when this post was supposed to be about disability?

The reason is that Canadians seem to apply a parallel version of the stereotypes of Africa to their impressions of the individuals with whom I work.

So what is life like for them?

Before I get into some details, this seems like a good time to review the balance between extrapolation (and stereotypes when this really goes rampant) and specificity. In my work, I have spoken with a few hundred Zambians with disabilities. Each and every one of them has a rich biography, that could fill pages. Just like you or I. That is the thing with being a human – Zambian, Canadian, other nationality; disabled, not-currently-disabled, sort-of-disabled, etc. We all share this in common. At the same time, there are commonalities, writ large, that apply to the current realities of Zambia.

With all of the above in-mind, let me tell you two things that are specific to the experience of disability in Zambia today. Both of these things have to do with socio-economics.

As mentioned above, Zambia is a poor country, and I can confirm that my research people with disabilities speak a lot about their poverty. Like constantly. But I also mentioned Zambia’s economic growth – growth that is creating new formal employment opportunities for Zambians. And yet, these opportunities are not distributed equally. The multinational stores within those previously-mentioned shopping malls are actually good at hiring persons with disabilities when they apply. Except, how do you make it to work when there is no accessible transportation? How do you present yourself as qualified when the stores have their pick of university graduates? Meanwhile, you were sent home from high school because, “spaces are limited and none of those spaces are for students like you.” Zambia’s economic growth brings opportunities, but there are signs that the inequality of those opportunities is increases the income gap between persons with and without disabilities, rather than reducing it.

The second thing I will tell you is that Zambia is building a public social safety net. These days, we in Canada experience an erosion in public services while some people shout, “government is too big!” Meanwhile, Zambians know very well that not having government services is a very big problem. With the economy growing on the whole, the Government of Zambia is investing in targeted ways to address severe poverty, and persons with disabilities are among the target groups.

Given the shifting present realities, what should be the socio-economic future of disability? Should Zambians with disabilities look forward to major shifts in society so that they are no longer discriminated from opportunities as they arise? Or should they foresee that social welfare programs will financially compensate them for society’s cumulative discrimination?

When I ask this question to the people with disabilities who I work with, this is how they answer:

Yes, we should get out of poverty. So Shaun, what are you going to do to help make this happen?

More about the author:
@ShaunCleaver is a global health postdoctoral fellow in SPOT, at McGill.
He blogs on his research with Zambians with disabilities at

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.